Oxford has monuments celebrating racists in marble and bronze and architecture built on money from the slave trade. The buildings were great gifts and the racists were heroes in their time.

But should the statues now be pulled down?

The statue of Cecil Rhodes on the frontage of Oriel College’s Rhodes building in High Street is at the centre of this debate.

A group of Oxford University students called ‘Rhodes Must Fall Oxford’ wants to bring down this statue of the man which is at the top of a building towering over four other sculptures of religious leaders and two kings – Edward VII and George V. The building was built between 1909 and 1911 using £100,000 left to Oriel College for the construction by former student Cecil Rhodes.

At the time the building had it’s critics. The Mayor of Oxford wrote: “Oriel (has) broken out in the High…destroying a most picturesque group of old houses in so doing, and, to put it gently, hardly compensating us for their removal.”

Now a century later a D Phil student in history at Oxford, Brian Kwoba, wrote in the student newspaper The Cherwell – “The Rhodes scholarship was endowed with wealth extracted from the terrorised labour of Black African (diamond) miners. Rather than place a murderous colonialist like Rhodes upon a pedestal, I believe that Rhodes must fall.”

Rhodes studied at Oriel for one term in 1873 and then went to South Africa to start his fortune and didn’t return for his second term until 1876. Eventually, he established a monopoly of the world’s diamond supply to maintain high prices and became chairman of De Beers when the company was founded in 1888.

He used his money to follow his dream of creating a British Empire in Southern Africa by buying mineral concessions from indigenous tribal chiefs.

Rhodes famously summed up his goal: “I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race…If there be a God, I think that what he would like me to do is paint as much of the map of Africa British Red as possible.” By 1890 Rhodes was Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and introduced the Glen Grey Act to force black people off their lands and make way for industrial development.

When Black people began to get the vote in the Cape he raised voting requirements in 1892 to reduce the black political power.

He also introduced reforms to the educational system that segregated non-whites in schools and later the segregation extended to hospitals, theatres and public transport. His policies were later seen as a blueprint for the apartheid regime of South Africa.

He provoked strong reaction. Mark Twain sarcastically summed up Rhodes by saying: “I admire him, I frankly confess it; and when his time comes I shall buy a piece of the rope for a keepsake.”

But should Oxford University take down his statue? I put this question to two black people: Michelle Codrington whose fore-bearers were slaves belonging to Sir Christopher Codrington who donated £10,000 (now equivalent to £1.2m) for the construction of the famous Codrington library in All Souls college in 1751, and Euton Daley MBE, from Jamaica who became chief executive and artistic director of the Pegasus Theatre in Oxford.

Euton said: “If people are still creating statues and wealth on the backs of slavery or mine workers under apartheid, that is wrong. But if the statue is there as a monument to things that happened in the past with the proviso that the context is clear then it can be right. I don’t want to eradicate history because history is important to understand why and how we are now.”

Michelle told me: “There are many layers to this and I don’t think it is a black-and-white issue. As a Codrington I like the fact that when some people refer to me they mention the Codrington Library built entirely on money gained through the slave trade.

“Although people might be surprised to learn of this it takes people back to the slave owning history of this country and reminds them of where the money came from to build many of their monuments. The statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford’s High Street is a constant reminder of what kind of history is behind it. This is not just white history or black history; it is our history – a part of all of us – so we can all still talk about it and find out what it means.

“But when people see this statue, there is not often anyone available to explain why it is a problematic part of our history. It’s a shame it’s not being used to help create a dialogue.”